Techniques for Memorizing Greek Grammar

I’ve visited Greece many times, but have never learned the language beyond a few basics and some vocabulary. The most difficult challenge in learning Greek is the complex grammar.

Here are some examples of the difficulties:

English words don’t change much according to context. The word for “doctor” is always “doctor”. If we want to say that the doctor possesses something, we just add ‘s to the end: “The doctor’s house.”

It’s much more complicated in Greek.

The doctor” could be written in the following ways in Greek, depending on where is appears in a sentence:

  • Ο γιατρός είναι εδώ. (“O yiatros …” — The doctor is here.)
  • Βλέπω τον γιατρό. (“… ton yiatro” — I see the doctor.)
  • Το σπίτι του γιατρού. (“… tou yiatrou” — The house of the doctor.)

Greek has grammatical cases, which means that nouns and adjectives get inflected. Even the word for “the” changes in at least 18 different situations (singular or plural; nominative, genitive, or accusative; and masculine, feminine, and neuter).

Memory Palace Ideas

I’m trying to think about how to solve this problem using mnemonic techniques. The basic forms can be listed in tables like this:

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative [1] [2] [3]
Genitive [4] [5] [6]
Accusative [7] [8] [9]

 

The number in each cell could represent a locus in a memory palace. Each locus could contain at least two words: one for singular, and one for plural.

Here is an example using 18 situations for Greek words for “the”:

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative ο – οι η – οι το – τα
Genitive του – των της – των του – των
Accusative το(ν) – τους τη(ν) – τις το – τους

 

I’m thinking that instead of memorizing just the articles, I will memorize a simple phrase with each article in order to create patterns in context. So the memory journey might look something like this:

  1. Ο γιατρός είναι εδώ. Οι γιατροί είναι εδώ. [singular and plural: nominative, masculine]
  2. Η κυρία είναι εδώ. Οι κυρίες είναι εδώ. [singular and plural: nominative, feminine]
  3. Το παιδί είναι εδώ. Τα παιδιά είναι εδώ. [singular and plural: nominative, neuter]
  4. Το σπίτι του γιατρού. Το σπίτι των γιατρών. [singular and plural: genitive, masculine]
  5. Το σπίτι της κυρίας. Το σπίτι των κυριών. [singular and plural: genitive, feminine]
  6. Το σπίτι του παιδιού. Το σπίτι των παιδιών. [singular and plural: genitive, neuter]
  7. Βλέπω τον γιατρό. Βλέπω τους γιατρούς. [singular and plural: accusative, masculine]
  8. Βλέπω την κυρία. Βλέπω τις κυρίες. [singular and plural: accusative, feminine]
  9. Βλέπω το παιδί. Βλέπω τα παιδιά. [singular and plural: accusative, neuter]

(I hope that I have a grammar correct above. If anyone reading this speaks Greek and notices any mistakes, please let me know.)

Spelling Challenges

Another challenge of memorization is that one sound can be represented by many different letter combinations. The sound “i” (as in “beet”) can be represented by any of these letters and combinations:

  • υ
  • ι
  • η
  • ει
  • οι

Some of the letters that look English letters are pronounced much differently, so my existing mnemonic images for English letters might not cross over smoothly:

  • Η = i
  • Ρ = r
  • δ = delta is pronounced like “th” in “the”. The English “d” sound is spelled “ΝΤ” in Greek.
  • ν = n

I don’t know what to do about this problem yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something along the way.

Accents

Accents in Greek fall in unpredictable places. An example is the Syntagma metro stop in Athens. Foreigners call it “Sin-TAG-ma”, when it is actually “SIN-dag-ma” (Σύνταγμα).

I’ve previously dealt with this problem by using my number shape images to mark the accent. For example, I added a swan (2) to my image for the Greek word, μαζί, to remember that it has the accent on the second syllable.

The Goals

My main goal for this summer is still to learn Esperanto, but since I am in Greece for a while, I don’t want to miss this opportunity spend a bit of time on the language.

My goal isn’t to learn to “speak Greek by the end of the trip” or to memorize “X” number of words. It is just to push myself past the grammatical barrier that has been keeping me from learning Greek all these years. I will be traveling to Greece many times in the future, and hope to gradually pick up the language over several years.

I’m also interested in seeing what can be discovered about using mnemonic techniques for memorizing complex grammar. Esperanto has very simple grammar, and there isn’t much opportunity to apply memory techniques to grammatical cases, inflections, weird spellings, unpredictable accents, and other elements that make Greek perfect for this kind of experiment.

UPDATE: see also more thoughts on memorizing Greek Grammar.

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6 comments

  • You have no idea how surprised I was to see this!

    I’ve been subscribed to this blog for some time, and one of the biggest things I’ve been trying to get my head around is the immense effort required in the memorization of Greek grammar (Classical/Attic, though, not modern).

    The problem is the sheer number of cases and tenses (for verbs and nouns respectively) leading to an even greater number of forms.

    For declining cases: I tried to provide myself a structure for each word’s set of forms that put each image in relation to each other — a tree, I found, worked best for the case system, where I’d have the trunk shooting up for the nominative, then a branch shooting forward for the accusative, one shooting back for the genitive, and the dative at the base. I used separate trees for singular and plural.

    That way, each locus could have a cluster of words, in a somewhat meaningful spatial relationship (as opposed to, say, a list.)

    My verb tense memorization process was somewhat less successful — I didn’t find quite so cohesive an organization, although I’m sure I could if I went back to it. It’s a time-consuming process, though.

    By all means keep posting on this!

  • Thanks for commenting — I didn’t think anyone was going to read this post. 🙂

    Did we meet in London last August? Someone was asking Dominic O’Brien about memorizing classical Greek in the arbiter’s room.

    I took a look at classical Greek grammar a couple of weeks ago, and it’s even more complicated than modern Greek. I’m hoping some of the modern Greek that I learn will carry over to Classical Greek.

    I will keep posting about any techniques I experiment with. I’m working from a book called Learn Greek without a Teacher which seems fairly good.

    If you would like to share anything that you’re working on, there is a forum section for learning languages. Each registered user of the forum also gets a free memory blog.

    I’ve also just made a wiki page about learning Greek that anyone can edit:
    https://blog.artofmemory.com/wiki/Mnemonic_Techniques_for_Learning_Greek

  • Nope! Never been to London. Guess there are more of us than one would think.

    And yes, Classical Greek is pretty complicated….part of the main reason I’ve been trying to use Mnemonic techniques.

    And the forum/Wiki look promising! I’ll bookmark them, and then come back and give them a closer look/maybe start participating once it’s not so close to finals week.

  • Great to find someone else working on Greek. I’d be interested in hearing about any techniques you discover…

  • Hello! I have just discovered your blog. I have a question. If you could answer it, I’d be very pleased. Here is it:
    I know the “ordinary” plurals like ο γιατρός > οι γιατροί. But how should i learn little baffling ones like o γαλατάς > οι γαλατάδες. Normally, one would say that it is γαλατές. However, it’s not.
    I hope I was clear in my question. I would be very happy if my quesiton is answered. Thank you.

  • I’m not sure — I haven’t done that exact thing.

    One idea to experiment with might be to create a memory town with 14 or 15 areas (however many types of pluralization there are) and put all the words that have the same pluralization form in the same area. I experimented with that for German a little bit, but didn’t finish. It seemed promising, but it’s also time consuming to organize by pluralization.

    You might want to check out Anthony Metivier’s website — he has some very interesting ideas about language learning.

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